This is officially perhaps my favorite part of Manhattan these days – the whole strip of Nassau and Williams Street running between Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge. What the hell is going on down here? I mean, this is really a forgotten corner of the island, though granted a forgotten corner of the island that teems with tens of thousands of people every weekday. But just check out the stores! Not hip; that gives you some indication of the assumed prospects of the place. I feel like I’ve been citing the AIA Guide a lot lately (though why shouldn’t I?) but they get what I’m talking about too, calling it, “one of Lower Manhattan’s least recognized – an therefore most intriguing – areas.” Right on guys.
I was biking up Nassau the other night – very slowly, head craned upward as I tend to do – and was stopped dead by number 63. What I’m always looking for in the city is the juxtaposition, or maybe you could say the anachronism. Or to to put it more simply: the old shit, especially when it’s next to the new. 63 Nassau has that feel – and it speaks to why I’m really digging this area in general. This is an old old part of the city – not quite the Financial District, not quite the Civic Center – and there’s a lot of remnants kicking around. 63 Nassau is also one of only three or four buildings in New York attributed to James Bogardus, the pioneer figure in cast-iron architecture. He took out a patent on the technique in 1850 and worked in the medium till sometime in the 1860s. And very little is actually known about his works.
The beauty of the cast-iron facade was that it could be pre-fabricated and then transported and assembled onto a building – mimicking the look of ornately carved masonry at a distinctly cheaper cost, and with the added benefit of being fireproof. 63 Nassau Street was constructed without the cast-iron facade in fact, probably around 1844, and not by Bogardus, who was an inventor, not an architect. He didn’t add the facade we see today until sometime in the late 1850s, making it one of the earliest cast-iron facades in the city. If he did indeed add the facade – in truth it’s all an educated guess at this point as building and architectural records in New York back then just weren’t what they are today. One clue that it was Bogardus are the circular medallions (or “rondels”) of Benjamin Franklin sitting at the base of two of the columns. The other two columns originally bore medallions of George Washington – something that was a bit of a Bogardus calling card.
Bogardus was born in Catskill, New York (in 1800) a few hours up the Hudson River, though his family could trace their lineage way back to the New Amsterdam days. Bogardus was a descendant of Everardus Bogardus (good name), the second minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in New Amsterdam (we’re talking the 1640s here) and somebody I’ve mentioned before. Bogardus’ congregation – the first formed in the city, and the oldest continuous Protestant congregation in the country – met on South Williams Street before building a church on Pearl, back when these streets all looked pretty different. No buildings still stand in Manhattan from the city’s New Amsterdam days, but you gotta think some must have been when Bogardus (the younger) was around. In fact his grafting of cast-iron facades onto older buildings can almost be thought of as an up-dating of the city, placing the 1850s present onto the tired face of the past. It’s interesting to think how in that way facades can be deceiving. They’re so much of what we see of a building – they basically are a building when it comes to appearance – and yet they’re mainly just cosmetic. I’ll think it walking around Greenpoint all the time, passing endless vinyl-sided two story houses (some with sloped roofs and everything) that I’m sure are made of wood and that are probably as old as the shingle or clapboard-sided beauties that make you pause a moment as you pass them. If all the old buildings in New York where covered in vinyl would they still be old? What if all the steel and glass condos going up today were given cast-iron facades? A city’s aesthetic is mainly determined by the appearance of its buildings right, and its buildings appearance must be mainly determined by their age. So what’s the most prevalent era in New York as represented by its architecture? I’m gonna have a beer and think about it. Can anybody answer that?